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What's the big idea? Fiona Noble, Weber Shandwick

Everyone is searching for the 'Big Idea', but much more relevant today are 'ideas that grow' - those that carry a truth recognised by consumers, who will want to share it and make it their own.

Telling compelling stories, driving engagement and conversation, and creating excitement and recommendation - these represent both a route map for brand success in the 21st century and a distillation of what PR does best. Yet for an industry so adept at driving conversation, PR has not always made its case to marketers persuasively enough.

All too often, talk of metrics, analysis and return on investment has been downplayed, or even neglected. By not using the vocabulary that matters, PR did itself a disservice, and a lack of clarity led to lost opportunities. For marketers harbouring doubts that PR agencies could really generate the big ideas and deliver measurable impact, the only sensible course of action was to seek strategic input elsewhere and leave PR to amplify the ideas of others further down the line.

We sold ourselves short and got what we deserved - a brief to pick up the crumbs.

That was then; now things are very different. The world of communications has changed radically, moving from the old broadcast model to an engagement one. Unquestionably, social media now has the power to make or break brands as consumers express their likes and dislikes so powerfully in a few keystrokes.

In recent months, social media's influence has crystallised with astonishing clarity. As demonstrated by its role in the Arab Spring uprisings and the London riots, social media can galvanise civil unrest for good or ill, with ramifications as far reaching as the toppling of governments. Ideas and opinions now spread more rapidly than wildfire.

As an industry, PR has for some time claimed to be agnostic, rather than wedded to one narrow set of beliefs, but there have always been caveats. The momentum of the 'idea economy', however, is sweeping away those caveats. Today, the most valuable commodity of all is the creation of an idea that has the power to transform conversations and transform businesses.

In this economy, everyone is chasing great ideas. By everyone, I mean not just brand owners, but agencies of every kind, be they the traditional owners of 'creative capital' - the advertising agencies - or digital, experiential, media and PR agencies. We are all in search of that overused phrase, the 'Big Idea'.

Weber Shandwick believes that big ideas are not necessarily the best ones. More important are transformative ideas, which we like to call 'ideas that grow'. These ideas have their roots in an incontrovertible truth and can travel across all channels, be adapted and shared and take on a life and momentum of their own beyond the original creation.

In this age of engagement and conversation, skills in building advocacy, influence, interaction and trust are a more important part of the marketing mix than ever before. PR practitioners have always had the skills for telling stories, but now we also have the ability to shape them too, if we get the content right. We live in a content-driven world where consumers are happy to engage with a brand if, and only if, it has something interesting to say that entertains or involves them.

Brands need to understand how to provide content that gives the consumer a richer and more personal experience. In other words, marketers are no longer just brand custodians, but brand curators.

Increasingly, and rightly, clients want great ideas that are going to drive their brands and business forward. Much has been written about the breaking down of silos and the blurring of lines and disciplines, all of which serves to bring the very best ideas to the top - as long as there has been a change in corporate mindset, culture and behaviour.

Becoming ideas-driven cannot be achieved by simply flicking a switch. We don't pretend to have all the answers, but we are taking real practical strides toward the creation of an ideas culture throughout our company. As the first big PR agency to appoint a chief innovation officer, we have put disruption, agitation, and a focus on innovation, at the heart of our business.

No one can predict the future, but brands and businesses that understand how to tell stories - by feeding consumers with content and experiential opportunities that drive conversation and engagement, which can be shaped and shared socially - will most definitely be the winners.

From Marketing's PR essays supplement October 2011

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